Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow Review

When Peter Jackson and effects team WETA revealed Lord of the Rings character Gollum, the world of filmmaking gasped. He was, after all, an evolutionary leap forward in terms of computer animation, with a stunning sense of authenticity. Here was a character constructed entirely of CGI, that seemed to emote and move with grace - a direct contrast to the failed attempts of George Lucas to give Jar-Jar Binks a “personality”. Despite Gollum’s alter-ego Andy Serkis, the image we saw on screen was fabricated; sparking plenty of questions. If an animated character could move realistically in a practical environment, could actors be inserted into an imaginary world? Such an ambition was partly achieved by Disney’s technological classic Tron, a film that died at the box office, but received a dedicated fan-base following its box office burial. It has taken until 2004’s Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow for the idea to work so successfully. It faced a similar fate with cinema-goers, but Hollywood once again marvelled over the possibilities of visual effects. Director Kerry Conran’s debut is the first picture to be shot entirely on green-screens, creating a world far-removed from our own...

Sky Captain seems to inhabit a parallel-universe; an alternative 1930’s where superheroes and fictional monsters roam. The action takes place in New York, where we find intrepid reporter Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow). Determined to get the story, her latest article questions the mysterious disappearance of several renowned scientists. But her snooping is cut short when the city is attacked by an army of giant robots, resulting in mass-carnage. Thank God then, that Joseph “Sky Captain” Sullivan (Jude Law) is on hand to save the day. Rescuing Polly, the pair proceed to trace the killing machines to the sinister Dr. Totenkopf, whose evil schemes spell trouble for the entire world. Will they stop Totenkopf in time, and save the Earth?

Aping 1930’s serials, pulp classics, and every other tale of derring-do, Sky Captain screams with retro chic. Clearly a die-hand fan of old-fashioned adventure yarns, Conran created a six-minute short on his Macintosh, and the seeds of this motion picture were sewn. Producer John Avnet saw some worth in his amateur footage, and the film hit production - perhaps the greatest rags-to-riches tale in quite some time. The finished product would be a financial flop, but no one can deny the sheer technical brilliance of Sky Captain - the film looks and feels like it was made in the Golden Age of Hollywood, recalling everything from the classic Fleischer Superman cartoons, to fantasy tales like The War of the Worlds. It looks spectacular, with many shots passing into the realm of genuine art. The hi-def photography helps to give the film an epic sweep, with the digital backdrops perfectly recreating the era. It’s like stepping into a time-warp. Everything here is powered by nostalgia, with the Boy’s Own vibe present and correct.

In fact, the style of Conran’s film proves to be a double-edged sword. Few people will actually appreciate the skill on show here - after all, I severely doubt most cinema-goers will recognise the director’s many influences. At its core, the film is nothing more than a lavish throwback to the action spectacles of yesteryear. But it’s a genre that really appeals to me. Modern blockbusters have lost the essence of what made these pictures so memorable. They were light-hearted, fun and good-natured - traits that rarely crop up in the same brew today. While modern aesthetics have improved on the serial formula, there’s something timeless about the clichés embraced by Sky Captain. It’s just brimming with fun. Take the introduction of those giant robots. They lumber through the streets, smashing through skyscrapers and shooting lasers from their eyes...what’s not to like? It’s remarkably cheesy - with a serious dosage of camp - but I loved every minute. And seeing Law’s titular character fly through the sky and pull off impossible manoeuvres is sure to excite the most jaded viewer.

The action scenes are frequent, ranging from an attack on Joseph’s military base, to an underwater skirmish with more mechanical beasts (look closely, and you’ll spot the submerged Titantic, and the ship from 30’s classic King Kong). This all leads to the suitably action-heavy climax, on Totenkopf’s fantastical island. But the story helps to highlight Sky Captain’s biggest flaws. The screenplay by Conran maintains the classic style, and in that respect, the characterisation is paper-thin. Law seems to be having immense fun channelling Errol Flynn for his role here (something that might have helped him during The Aviator), which helps to disguise the poor dialogue. He’s dashing like any Golden Age hero, but there’s nothing under the hood. That said, it’s Paltrow that really disappoints. Her fragile good looks and acting range don’t really aid the character of Polly Perkins. It’s probably due to the shooting method, but the actress is rather stilted here; had she been given something to react to, she may have been better. Paltrow is also saddled with the “annoying reporter” role, which is clearly based on Lois Lane.

Elsewhere, you should notice Angelina Jolie’s name above the title. Such billing is probably unwarranted, since her role is so small. Yet, her sensuality lightens up the screen as Franky Cook, a one-eyed freedom fighter who dons some seriously sexy clothes (it’s all about the leather). The supporting cast also reveals Giovanni Ribisi as that time-honoured staple “the reliable mechanic”. As weapons expert Dex, he gets into the role with relish, and is clearly enjoying the challenge. Unfortunately, veterans like Michael Gambon are pushed to the sidelines; there only to provide a familiar face. Which brings me neatly to the late Laurence Olivier - brought back from the dead by those CGI boffins. Using his likeness, Conran has resurrected the legendary performer to appear as the mysterious Totenkopf. This raises all sorts of moral questions, but thankfully, the filmmakers use his visage with a great deal of respect. Honestly, is there anything a computer can’t do?

Ultimately, I adored Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. It felt fresh amidst a summer of hum-drum thrillers and comic book spin-offs. It succeeds mostly as a technical achievement, that should impress those fascinated by the craft. Conran has whipped up a great deal of fun with tired conventions, providing some breathtaking photography and scenes of rip-roaring spectacle, that help to cover those narrative faults. It’s an acquired taste indeed, but an adventure I’d gladly take again...

The Disc

As per usual, a film that flopped is granted a new life on home video - a realm that greets Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow with open arms. With respectable DVD sales, the cult audience for Conran’s debut is growing steadily. Any fans out there, will be well-served by Paramount’s “Collector’s Edition”, which refuses to skimp on quality despite the pathetic box office. In other words, this is a pretty fine disc, and one I heartily recommend.

The Look and Sound

As you’d expect, Sky Captain’s visual appeal is carefully transferred onto shiny disc. The anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) picture is beautiful, highlighting the digital showmanship that powered Conran’s vision. Since the film switches between varying styles throughout, the transfer was rather hard to grade, yet it also wowed me with its sense of spectacle. Of course, this is essentially a digital-to-digital conversion, so the DVD producers didn’t face too many challenges in making the film look spectacular. Sky Captain is a recent release, so there was no edge-enhancement, line noise, haloing, or blocking. Due to the 30’s style, I was thankful that the blacks are solid (the film is bathed in dark hues), with grain employed only to reinforce the film noir aesthetic. Picking faults was hard, yet a few instances of light compression creeped in. Otherwise, Paramount’s work was first-rate.

The film might look older than the Hollywood hills, but the audio matches the exuberance of a Nine Inch Nails concert...without the death-metal, of course. The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is an immersive, ass-kicking experience, that piles on the orchestral strokes. The score is wonderfully evocative, recalling the early work of Alan Silvestri or John Williams. Loud is the key word here. The surrounds boast a great amount of direction too, using the sound-field to pull the audience in even deeper. The moment in which the giant robots first set foot in Manhattan is one of considerable strength, with the sound design surrounding you with clanking metal feet, and terrified bystanders. The track is always changing gear, and never once falters on a severe level. Some of you will long for DTS, but this is one of the better Dolby Digital tracks I’ve heard recently.

Bonus Material

Surprisingly, all of the extra features are housed on the same disc; a direct contrast to the current Region 2 copy, which is a double-disc presentation, with the same material. That was probably done to claim more money from consumers, more so than maximising transfer-quality. So, how does the R1 disc stand-up?

Audio Commentaries

There are two of these; the first granting producer Jon Avnet a solo yack-track. In sufficient detail, he describes his involvement with the film, from his reaction to Conran's original short film, to his desire to see the tale on the big screen. Like an old pro, he covers every base - the conception, casting, raising cash, developing the computer technology, and keeping things together during the frantic post-production schedule. He kept me engaged throughout, with his frank assessment of the picture. Therefore, the second track is somewhat disappointing, especially since it includes several contributors. It assembles writer/director Kerry Conran, production designer Kevin Conran, animation supervisor Steve Yamamoto, and visual effects supervisor Darin Hollings. This commentary is full of dead spots, and when informative, delves only into the technical aspects of the shoot. The Conrans are clearly brimming with pride, but the track failed to grab me. For fans, it’s probably a must-listen, but I’ll recommend Avent’s commentary for the casual viewer.


These begin with the 51-minute “Brave New World”, which is split into two chapters. A project of this scale was clearly in need of a comprehensive documentary, and this piece manages to deliver plenty of facts. The main players are interviewed - Conran, Avent, Law and Paltrow - with a generous amount of behind-the-scenes footage. Clearly a challenge for both the filmmakers and the actors, it was intriguing to see how the crew treated the cutting-edge shooting methods, and how stars like Law handled the non-existent environments. Sky Captain was clearly groundbreaking stuff, and this exhaustive documentary helps to explain its intriguing flight to the screen.

“The Art of World of Tomorrow” lasts for a mere 8-minutes, and concentrates on the films design work. Kevin Conran is on board here, discussing the grandiose visual look, how the shots were composed, and what elements were practically produced during filming. The short running time is annoying, since this piece could have gone on longer. That said, the main draw is obviously “The Original Six-Minute Short”, available here for the first time. Conran’s talent is clear with this early footage, even without the multi-million dollar budget. Taken from the films beginning, it’s interesting to note how many of the shots survived, though the music here is taken from the feature (I wonder what Conran used originally?) A neat look at the production process, these featurettes were wonderful.

The disc concludes with three deleted scenes, and a mildly amusing gag reel.

The Bottom Line

As a showcase for innovative special effects, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow hits a home run. Thankfully, there’s some heart to be found beneath the digital trickery, making Kerry Conran’s debut a fun, campy adventure. It’s definitely not for everyone, but those with an affection for old-fashioned serials and Boy’s Own tales should be bowled-over by Conran’s loving homage. Thanks to Paramount’s careful treatment, the disowned Sky Captain soars to new heights on DVD. Tally-ho!

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